Its charismatic theology and clashes with other religions have caused it to be expelled from Benin’s community of churches, and repeated scandals keep the sect in the public eye.
The latest episode occurred in January, when five followers suffocated to death after they were told to lock themselves inside sealed rooms with burning incense and pray for deliverance.
But it seems no amount
of bad press can dent the
Very Holy Church’s soaring popularity, or eclipse the fire-and-brimstone appeal of
On special Sundays, thousands of followers climb up a hill in the Zou district in Baname, 130 kms north of the commercial capital Cotonou, to witness one of the country’s most seductive pastors. Vicentia Tadagbe Tchranvoukinni, who calls herself “Perfect” and “God’s Holy Spirit”, promises to “drive
The round-faced young woman founded the church in 2009. Since then, her influence has grown rapidly across the country. “Just by walking up this hill, you are delivered and cured of many ailments,” she proclaims on her website, which shows videos of her in a cassock and her signature cherry-red cloche hat addressing cheering crowds.
Her story is a take on immaculate conception: Tchranvoukinni claims she fell from the sky in northern Benin and was found by a Fulani shepherd in the bush.
West Africa is no stranger to larger-than-life pastors and Benin itself is a tumultuous hub of mystical religions
But despite her cherubic appearance, Tchranvoukinni stands apart for her vitriolic condemnation of other beliefs -- notably voodoo, an official religion here.
Critics accuse her of fanning hatred between normally peaceful co-existing communities of different faiths.
On January 8, violent clashes broke out between her followers and residents in the southern town of Djime, who said they “insulted and offended” traditional leaders during an “evangelisation mission”, one local official said while local media confirmed that two people were killed, several others injured and vehicles torched.
There was no official death toll but Benin’s government said it regretted the “loss of life”.
According to daily newspaper, the “warriors of the Church of Baname” came dressed in grey, armed with guns, machetes and clubs. It wasn’t the first time church followers had turned violent.
In 2014, clashes broke out at one of its rallies in Cotonou after youths from the Kpondehou area refused to leave their sports field. Several people were seriously injured.
Violence broke out again the following year in the central town of Save between church devotees and Roman Catholics.
Tchranvoukinni started the church after meeting a Catholic priest, Mathias Vigan, from the parish of Sainte-Odile-de-Baname in 2009. “Perfect” was not yet 20 and had come to be exorcised. But it was the young woman who captivated the man of the cloth, whom she would later install as “Pope Christopher XVIII”.
The religious odd couple built up their own congregation and to the chagrin of the Catholic church, Vigan started wearing all-white outfits similar to papal regalia -- ornate mitre and all. Tchranvoukinni meanwhile called herself God.
By 2013, the Episcopal Conference of Benin -- the country’s assembly of bishops -- expelled Tchranvoukinni and Vigan, and condemned the new church as a cult.
Then in January 2014, the Benin government launched an investigation into the church after receiving what it said were “numerous complaints”.
The Church of Baname’s spokesman, “cardinal” Cesaire Agossa, however, insists that Tchranvoukinni is a divine messenger. Her mission? “To end the reign of Beelzebub, to succeed in exterminating sorcery and all evil spirits that prevent mankind from developing,” he said.